There’s More to Architecture than Meets the Eye
Architect Chris Downey lost his sight unexpectedly after a surgery in 2008. He’s continued his practice, though, with a focus on designing for the visually impaired and on making buildings more accessible for everyone. As such, he has a unique perspective on architecture and design—and that perspective should make for a very thought-provoking keynote at the HEALTHCARE DESIGN Conference.
I asked Chris to share a couple of insights (or, as he calls them, “outsights”) before we all get together in Phoenix. Here’s what he had to say.
KDZ: Can you share with us one of the more surprising realizations you made in continuing your architecture practice after losing your sight?
CD: One surprising realization is how the design of space and form can come alive when reading a drawing through touch. Reading embossed drawings (“tactile plots”) with my fingers creates a much more vivid and immediate sense of being within the design than I ever realized when reading drawings through sight. It may seem crazy, but I think that because it's so easy to "see" drawings with your eyes, your brain doesn't work that hard. It is, after all, really hard to draw what a space sounds or feels like. Knowing the materials, the volumes, and the construction as you move your fingers through a drawing creates a mental presence that is so much more complete. With 45 years of visual experience and 20 years of sighted architectural experience, the mental imagery is just as present for me, yet it gets layered with other non-visual aspects. This is fantastic, especially when considering architecture beyond sight.
In your talk, you’ll be discussing how the built environment benefits from an all-senses approach. Can you give us an example of a healthcare facility that does this well?
I'm sure rich sensory experiences in healthcare design are out there, but I have not yet had the privilege of experiencing them. To venture beyond the building type, however, a few buildings come to mind. To pick one that may provide a surprising yet relevant challenge, I'd go with the United Terminal at the Chicago O'Hare airport. Visually, it's a delightful, sun-filled space that elevates the spirits to the skies— a notable and appropriate ambition for an airport. There's an excitement to the acoustics that create a "hustle" within the concourse in contrast to the stillness of the gates and waiting areas. The main circulation spine is terrazzo under the signature glazed vaults overhead. This articulates the clip-clop of footfalls and the sound of spinning wheels under rolling bags, providing an audible current to the flow of the space. The gates and seating areas are off to either side and finished with carpet, which is both acoustically and tactilely comforting while waiting. The material change from terrazzo to carpet also provides an easy mechanism for walking the concourse without veering unknowingly into the seating areas. The architecture speaks through acoustics and touch as well as sight. It animates life in appropriate places yet provides calm where needed. It's not a hospital, but it too serves a population that’s often anxious, challenged, or rushed.
What features resonate most with you as “good design” within a healthcare space?
Without a doubt, the concept of healing gardens. That wasn't an option at the hospital where my surgery was done. After a week of lying in a pitch-black world with a chorus of equipment blings, clattering carts, pictureless TVs, and hermetically sealed spaces, I was desperate to get outside to feel and hear the world around me. I pleaded to be taken outside, but there was no place to go. Eventually, over the second weekend, a nurse noted that there was a courtyard for a pediatric wing that wasn’t being used at the time, and that my family could take me there. It didn’t seem to be a particularly rich or wonderful place, but it was fantastic simply to feel a breeze, to feel the sun on my face, the coolness in the air, and to hear the flapping of birds’ wings. For all I know it was just a concrete slab for kids to bang around on, but it was a most welcome relief from the sensory monotony inside. It takes little imagination to imagine the power of a more developed healing garden.